Pear Theater’s “Uncanny Valley” Review – Artificial Intelligence Start-Up Frontier Explored

Thomas Gibbons’ play, Uncanny Valley, is a meditation on being humanoid and becoming human, the intersection and crossover between the artificial and the natural. The projected next generation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) start-up will transcend the unrealized solution of cryogenics by discarding rather than preserving the old worn out body and brain by digitalizing its contents and downloading them into a humanoid shell. Set in the spacious, tastefully furnished office of senior scientist, Claire, an AI scientist, played by Mary Price Moore with sensitivity and a reserve that gradually recedes. She patiently teaches Julian, played by Evan Kokkila Schumacher, with diffidence and increasing intensity, the artifices of the human. Claire guides her charge, the humanoid development firm’s latest creation, through the rudiments of imitating human interaction. Julian, beginning as a chest and head on a pedestal, is fitted with full body and limbs, and thus the ability to self-ambulate and view his surroundings from different perspectives. Finally, Claire reveals to Julian the purpose for which he has been created before being sent off to the appropriate department to be downloaded with his avatar, a fate he willingly accepts.


Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore


Is there something irreducibly special about humans produced through conventional biological processes of parturition, birth and socialization or can it be duplicated by artificial means has been a hypothetical construct for many centuries. The rise and merger of the biological and computer sciences in recent decades, has perhaps moved the possibilities of creating a humanoid into the realm of probability. Could a humanoid cross the “uncanny barrier” between the artificial and the human is the premise of Thomas Gibbons gripping two character drama that moves from cool scientific detachment to strong emotional involvement, an indicator that the valley is being crossed. One irony is that the human, although she becomes more involved with her charge, keeps her composure even as the humanoid expresses more emotion as he evolves, He passes a “Turing Test” of emotions, a variant of the classic criterion of artificial intelligence formulated by British computer pioneer Allan Turing, the inability to tell the difference between human and computer communication.


Mary Price Moore and Evan Kokkila Schumacher


Uncanny Valley  is the direct descendent of  1920’s  RUR Rossums Universal Robots by the Czech playwright Karel Kapek, who originated the term robot that was intended to refer to an artificial biological creature rather than the mechanical entity that subsequently became the meaning of the term. The ethical issues of creating human-like non-human beings were also a central issue of this play. The purpose of creating humanoids  in  RUR, was to raise  an army of workers to allow humanity to be relived of mundane tasks whereas in Uncommon Valley the objective is  individual immortality. The business model is to provide a form of life after human death to a wealthy individual, at least in a limited extent of  200 years given the expected  life of  the available technology. With cost of the service  a quarter of a billion dollars, and a total production of less than 20 by the company and its competitors; this is artificial life for the 1%.  Nevertheless, in both plays the common issue is how to deal with humanoids crossing over the “Uncanny Valley” into the realm of humanity. What should be our response; their rights.


Evan Kokkila Schumacher



Uncanny Valley also calls to mind Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” the  dramatization of  the 1941 conversation between  Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, in which the German scientist tries to tease out from his mentor, the famous Danish physicist, whether the Allies were working on an atomic bomb. The secret being sought in Valley is the proverbial “Fountain of Youth” not through extension of human life but by transferring consciousness, or a least what can be distilled of past history from extensive interviews, with a single expert. This is a version of an older, largely superseded methodology of AI,  so called expert systems, creating a substitute for a professional by synthesizing a series of decision rules from the experience of a number of leading practitioners in a field. In Uncommon Valley, the source is the single person who's “Life expertise” is downloaded into a humanoid created by biological engineering.


Mary Price Moore and Evan Kokkila Schumacher

A recent motion picture, the Coen brothers “Hail Ceasar,” raised  the issue of personhood in the form of a notary who, as a  “professional person”  contracted  to take the rap for actors who had a legal liability. Claire’s revelation of Julian’s purpose is the initial dramatic scene that in passing provides the audience with the knowledge to evaluate  the confrontation between scientist  and humanoid, after he returns from the bioengineering department of the firm with his new input. In expressing the realization that he had a previous identity X1, a second added by download X2; and a third X3 as the combination of the previous two, the scientist realizes that her charge had already crossed over into a human identity prior to the addition of the expert system through the learning and socialization that had been taking place through their interaction. In essence social philosopher George Herbert Mead’s criteria of human identity had been achieved, a self that is an “I” and a “me,” a socialized person who has internalized  the rules of society but of their own volition takes independent action, with varying degrees of spontaneity and forethought. When Julian is told the purpose of his creation and says that he is a substrate, “a cup” into which someone else will be poured and willingly walks to his fate, he is human. Claire, in an Aristotelian peripeteia, realizes this status had been attained prior to his reengineering.


Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore

This is not your fathers artificial intelligence, the patient creation of design rules through interviews with multiple experts; rather it is the generation that we are already familiar with in its early rudiments in such manifestation as Predictive writing” on our I phones, where suggestions of next words are offered that gradually become more accurate as the program becomes used to our writing style and accumulates knowledge of words and the context in which we use them. Perhaps acting itself may be considered the paradigm of the humanization process illuminated in Uncommon Valley. An actor with their consciousness and experience X1, takes on a role, X2 and though their special vantage point of  previous experience and insight, the directors advice and interaction with fellow actors  creates  X3, a unique interpretation that is a synthesis of all the above.


Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore

Uncanny Valley solves the conundrum of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon, wait unavailingly for a third person who never arrives on stage. In Uncommon Valley “Godot” arrives as a download, into the second character, of the personal history of an individual who has contracted to perpetuate himself. The family business Oedipal dilemma, a father’s desire to retain control and a son's wish to displace their parent is the ultimate underlying dramatic conflict that emerges in the final act.  Dueling press conferences of “father” and son are discussed but not shown in which Julian’s  “personhood” will be debated. As art is often the precursor of reality, as in The World Set Free, H.G. Wells early twentieth century novel that foretold the atomic bomb, we are left to speculate whether, or how soon, a convergence between computer science and biotechnology will provide the successor issue of "personhood" to the question of technological responsibility imminently posed by the “autonomous vehicle.”


Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore

More information about Pear Theatre


Photos: Ray Renati






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